Saturday, October 9, 2010

When will the Spanish pensions system collapse?

You might notice my deliberate and provocative use of the word "when" in the title rather than "might" or "if". I have just been doing an article for my website about Spanish pensions ("Spanish Pension Benefits") and was shocked by some of the figures I found during my research.

The article talks about how much someone in Spain can expect to get by way of a state pension, the answer being somewhere between 340€ a month up to nearly 3.000€ a month if you have made the maximum contributions. The majority will I guess be retiring on something between the minimum and double that, and bear in mind that in Spain you get 14 monthly payments (double at Christmas and Summer holiday time which is a nice system I think.

Not overly generous then but as everyone knows there is a pensions timebomb ticking in every developed country due to population ageing. Spain's ageing profile was what really surprised me and it is this and not the generosity of the payments that will sink the system. These are some UN figures comparing the ratio of working age Spaniards with oldies in 2050 with the ratio at the turn of the century:


Spain Working age (15-65) 27 million

Spain retirement age (65+) 7 million

Spain ratio - 4 workers to every pensioner


Spain Working age (15-65) 16 million

Spain retirement age (65+) 12 million

Spain ratio - 1.4 workers to every pensioner

(source UN Ageing Report

So, Spain has an 11% public sector deficit now ( ie is borrowing to pay current pensions) and that is barely 10 years into this dramatic demographic shift. It seems inconceivable that Spain will be able to finance state pensions with 11 million fewer workers and 5 million more pensioners. It just can't happen. So what will happen?

A big shift towards encouraging rather than deterring immigration? That may partially happen but the problem is rich countries tend to attract the poor and unskilled who may not exactly be an unmitigated economic boon.

Cuts in benefits and later higher retirement ages? For sure and these are being talked about at the moment with a report from 100 economists suggesting reforms along these lines ( but the reforms seem quite timid, with a rise of only 2 years in the retirement age and an increase of 5 years in the number of years' contributions required to get the maximum pension (it is now 35). Hardly enough to rescue the system you would have thought.

Essentially the government is making promises it cannot keep and cannot renege on explicitly for fear of a political backlash. The outcome will eventually be a default on its pensions promises by stealth - pensioners will get the nominal pension they have paid for but the government will borrow and print the money to pay for it so inflation erodes its effective value. At some point in the next couple of decades 70s style inflation will wipe out much of the real value of state pensions.

Other recent articles: Spanish non resident tax

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